Saturday, May 20, 2017

Harsh Reality with a Sweet Dream


The White City by Karolina Ramqvist


Karin is having a hard time this frigid winter. To begin with, her deadbeat, criminal boyfriend left her with their newborn baby girl Dream. Add to this that she has almost no cash left, no job, practically no food in the house and must use the least amount of electricity she can, so they don't turn that off. The worst part is she's about to lose her home and her car. Karin must find a way out of this problem, and Karolina Ramqvist's novel is all about her search for an answer.

Let me begin by saying that Ramqvist's writing is very appealing, with a fluid style that borders on the impersonal, the chill of which perfectly mirrors the wintry setting of the story. Yet behind this, Ramqvist is equally able to evoke the sparks of heated emotions, running the gamut of adoration for Karin's little baby Dream, to her regrets for getting involved with a gang of criminals and falling for the man who got her pregnant, and her fears of becoming homeless. This play between anxiety and serenity underlies the story throughout, giving the narrative an ominous feel to it, where any potential relief feels like it is always just beyond the horizon and practically unreachable.

That said, despite how great this sounds, it is also one of the reasons I had a problem with this book. I'm willing to admit that this may just be me, but sometimes there are authors that put too much "atmosphere" into their novels. We can overlook this if there are other elements to the story that balance this out. For example, if the character development is such that our empathy for the protagonist increases throughout the story. Another way to temper an atmospheric narrative is if the pace of the novel builds from the setup towards climax, which creates tension in the action. I also have seen the inclusion of unexpected escapes from the narrative with things like snippets of humor, or diffused observances, also works well to alleviate too much of a heavy ambiance.

That last example is what Ramqvist attempted to use to break the darkness, but I found these to be too few and too subtle to succeed fully, despite the more hopeful twist at the end of the story. Because of this, I found this book to be overall too monotone for my liking, and the many references to white and cold and snow that should have suggested light and hope, just felt dark and gloomy. Of course, I know there's a whole genre called Scandinavian or Nordic Noir, and certainly, this book would fit well into that niche, but usually those books are more crime fiction novels, and despite the criminals included here, this book doesn't really fit well with that. 


All this just means that while I believe Ramqvist is a very talented writer, I found this book a bit too depressing for my taste. Thankfully, it isn't a very long work, and knowing that gave me enough patience to read it through (and to be honest, I might have given up on it before reaching the end if it was even a little bit longer). That said, although I'm sure that this book will still attract readers who like Noir genre novels, it just wasn't my style and I can't give it more than three stars out of five.




"The White City" by Karolina Ramqvist published by Grove Atlantic, Black Cat, released February 2017 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Ice and Cracks

Beartown by Fredrik Backman


Except for hockey, there's almost nothing left in Beartown, and it is only going to get worse, unless something changes. That something could be coming this year, since their junior team is finally good enough. If they succeed, who knows what that fame could bring? Maybe even a new hockey academy. Unfortunately, after the junior team won the semi-finals, something happened that changed everything, for both the team and the town. Now they have to deal with the harder question, which is, did this change Beartown for the worse or for the better? 

I have absolutely no interest in most sports (well, except when the Cubs won the World Series), and novels surrounding sports are usually ones for me to avoid. However, I did read Backman's novel "Britt-Marie Was Here" despite the focus on soccer. Although I'm no more interested in soccer than I was before I read that book, as most of my readers know, I adored that book. This is because what Backman did when he wrote that story is similar to what he did here, he wrote about people who are passionate about something, and how that fills their lives. Through their enthusiasm, we quickly realize that it can sometimes help them focus to the point of obsession, while at the same time it can also blind them. In this way, even when Backman goes into the details of the team playing their all-important game, we realize that this story isn't only about hockey; it is a metaphor to investigate the flawed human condition. 

One quote from this novel that's already showing up in the PR is "Never trust people who don't have something in their lives that they love beyond reason." Of course, this is technically referring to hockey, but I'm thinking that it's practically the theme of this book. By this, I mean that the enormous love for the various things that Backman shows us in this novel (hockey, family, a town, etc.) don't always make them trustworthy, they can sometimes make them reckless, which can also be damaging. Despite this, when your love for something is beyond reason, that passion also gives you the type of inner strength that can help you survive any damage caused by reckless actions. The balancing act that Backman plays between the positive and negative results of such obsessions is what I found pervasive throughout this novel, and what made it so amazing. 

That's just one reason to love this book, but there are many more. Another reason is how Backman succeeds in portraying this unusually large group of characters so vividly, blemishes and all. This was particularly important to me since I often get confused when there are too many characters to keep track of. Yet here, Backman's deep and intimate understanding of the people he's placed in Beartown practically forced him to give every one of them a distinctive tenor and cadence to their voices. This will lead readers to care for these characters as deeply as Backman obviously does, which in turn will lead to some laughter as well as no small amount of tears. There's also Backman's deceptively simple literary style of writing, within which he strews sparks of wisdom, traces of poetry and as already noted, flashes of humor.

However, one of the most artistic reasons to admire this book is Backman's pacing. Consider this - the opening line of this book is "Late one evening towards the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else's forehead and pulled the trigger. This is the story of how we got there." You cannot deny how incredible that opening line is, and then he immediately begins to slide carefully upwards towards the climax, using a very subtle incline. Then, when he gets to the climax, it's like watching a small explosion go off. From then on, his narrative takes on a somewhat blurry, disconnected, almost remote quality, which colors the book's whole atmosphere from that point. To me, it felt like he went from a conventional solid narrative, to one that you could compare to describing shattered glass (or shards of ice, if you will). That felt like yet another metaphor for how the climactic event traumatized the whole town as well as the individuals involved. One mechanic that Backman employed to emphasize this was in how instead of using the characters' names, he referred to them using general nouns (a boy, the girl, a woman, the man, etc.). That could have confused me, but by the time Backman made this switch, I knew these characters so well that I instinctively knew whom he was talking about; which I think was pure genius.

As you can tell, I absolutely adored this book. However, some readers might be less than thrilled with the detailed descriptions of the hockey games in the first part of this book. I would understand if they felt this slows down the story, and I have to admit that I too rushed through some of those parts. Despite that, once I got to the climax and the rest of the story fanned out in front of me, I understood the importance of those parts of the story to the overall novel. In other words, Backman proved to me yet again, what an astonishingly wonderful master storyteller he is (as if I didn't know that already)! Obviously, I can't give it less than a full five stars. 


"Beartown" by Fredrik Backman published by Atria Books, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books* (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for inviting me to read an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review. 

* NOTE: this book is also marketed under the title "The Scandal," which will be available  in August 2017. 

You can find my reviews of Fredrik Backman's other works here:

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Sins and Secrets of the Ancient Epicure

Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King


Apicius was a rich Roman merchant and famous gourmand who reached the height of his fame during the first century of the Common Era. His dream was to become gastronomic advisor to the Cesar. After his previous cook died of mysterious circumstances, he heard about the slave Thrasius that had just come on the market. Since Thrasius was a cook for one of his rival gourmands, he knew he must make this purchase. King tells this story through the eyes of Thrasius, imagining a relationship that will bring Apicius fame and lead to a collaboration in writing the world's first cookbook, all while navigating the ever changing conspiratorial waters of Roman politics.

What drew me to this book was the idea of the combination of culinary fiction with ancient roman historical fiction. Regarding the latter, many years ago, I read Colleen McCullough's "Masters of Rome" books, which began my fascination with this place and period in history. What amazed me about McCullough's books was the sheer volume of political underhanded dealings and intrigues that surrounded this early model of governance, elements of which still live today in modern democracies. Any historical fiction that takes place during these times must include a good measure of these complexities to be worth its salt. King decided to do this on a micro level by focusing on one family and the members of its household, who happen to have actually been at the eyes of some real major political storms.

As for my love of culinary fiction, of course, Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was an early favorite, but I think my real fascination with this tiny genre started with the obscure 1976 book Someone's Killing the Great Chefs of Europe by Nan and Ivan Lyons. (Trust me; if you can get your hands on a copy, it is a "must-read" for lovers of both culinary fiction and murder mysteries.) That led me to other authors such as Joanne Harris among others, and now it always piques my interest when I see food entwined with a fictional plot. With both of these two things in place, King's debut novel was one I absolutely had to read, and I'm pleased to say that she didn't let me down!

My regular readers will recall that I've always said there's a fine line between just enough and too much information in historical fiction - particularly when it comes to times where there's an abundance of information. As noted above, ancient Rome is certainly one of those instances. King does a commendable job of keeping the facts from overwhelming the fiction here, although I also felt that she could have cut down on some of the crisis that Thrasius and the Apicius family had to overcome. This can lead to a type of roller-coaster effect, which can be a touch tiresome; too many climaxes tend to lessen the impact of them as a whole. However, knowing what King was dealing with here made me feel that this was only a minor problem with this novel. On the other hand, what worked surprisingly well here was King's artful use of smatterings of Latin into the text, without disturbing the flow of the narrative. Mind you, there were some instances where King used phrases that felt a touch too modern for the period (for example, would someone from the 1st century use "okay?").

When it comes to the food parts of this book, King delightfully describes the meals and different types of banquets, including both their distinctive gourmet elements as well as the ostentatious methods of these events, down to the types of napkins they used. Although I already knew that many of the foodstuffs adored by Romans of the time are either unfamiliar or disused today, some of the ingredients could bring about both shock and awe for even the bravest of eaters (like dormouse, for instance). This clearly shows King's massive research here, the crumbs of which (pun intended) she artfully merges into the action, making sure their flavors don't overshadow the plot or the characters themselves. Therefore, regarding the essential elements of the culinary sphere, again King did a laudable job of balancing a high level of accuracy of facts into her fictional imaginings.

However, at its basis, this story belongs to Thrasius, which I might call a multi-faceted love story. We have Thrasius' love of food, cooking, and devising new recipes. We also witness his falling in love with a fellow slave. Furthermore, we see how Thrasius comes to love his master and the members of his family. Shakespeare said, "The course of true love never did run smooth" and so as King developed Thrasius' tale with many obstacles. As a character, Thrasius is is one readers can easily identify with, and will find themselves rooting for him with every barrier in his way, making for a story that will grip us from the start. Together with this, King also didn't hold back with developing the cast of characters surrounding Thrasius, making them no less vibrant and creating a believable and well rounded ensemble. Overall, I felt this novel was simply delectable. If this, King's debut work, is an appetizer of King's talent, we should all hungrily await the courses she has on her forthcoming menus. I think this book deserves an appealing four stars (literary, not Michelin) out of five.




"Feast of Sorrow" by Crystal King, published by Touchstone, released April 25, 2017 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Eves of Winter Stories

A Snow Garden & Other Stories by Rachel Joyce


In this collection, Rachel Joyce connects seven stories spanning from just before Christmas Eve through New Year's Eve. Joyce not only arranges these tales chronologically, she also links them with other elements. The stories here are:

  • A Faraway Smell of Lemon - Binny wasn't interested in preparing for Christmas when she steps into a shop to avoid one of her neighbors (reviewed previously, here)
  • The Marriage Manual - where the perfect couple assembles their son's new bicycle as their marriage falls apart
  • Christmas Day at the Airport - chaos ensues when the computers go down at the airport and a woman goes into early labor
  • The Boxing Day Ball - set in the 1960s, Maureen steps out and finds herself on her way towards her own future
  • A Snow Garden - Henry is still fragile after his breakdown, but insists he's ready to take care of his teenage boys while his ex-wife is away on vacation
  • I'll be Home for Christmas - Sylvia's son comes back to his humble home for a short break from his hectic life of stardom
  • Trees - on New Year's Eve, Oliver's father insists on planting trees in strategic spots 

As usual, Joyce hands us charm and wit as well as insights into the types of things that ordinary people experience every day. This combination is what made Joyce's readers fall in love with Harold Fry and Queenie Hennessy as well as her characters in Perfect. Hers are are the types of characters that evoke honesty and reflect the reality of the mundane. At the same time, they surprise us with just how extraordinary they these simple people can actually be. Yes, that may sound like an oxymoron, but that is Joyce's stock in trade. This idea is similar to what John Irving employs, but without the addition of absurdities (and endless digressions leading to more tangents) added to the mix. 

As I mentioned above, these stories are all very cleverly connected. For example, there's a red coat noted in the story "The Boxing Day Ball," and that same type of 1960s red coat shows up on a woman in adverts noted in a few of the modern day stories. Another example is how Binny's boyfriend Oliver in the first story ends up as the protagonist/narrator of the last story. Joyce also gives us a group of men dressed as Santa showing up in a few of the stories. Joyce ingeniously weaves these ties into her stories to be just subtle enough as to be noticeable, without becoming blatantly obvious. This, combined with Joyce's tender and almost simplistic writing style brings each these stories to life. Furthermore, although we could easily read any these tales on their own and in any order we choose, the adept compilation makes this book feel almost like a novel. 

I should note that as much as I enjoyed these stories, I'm not completely convinced that the short story is really Joyce's best venue for her talents. While Joyce gives us very sympathetic characters in each story, I sometimes felt that she didn't have enough time to develop them so that we could truly fall in love with them. I felt this most with the story "I'll be Home for Christmas," where just as we are starting to feel something for both Sylvia and her son, the story ends. In addition, I was somewhat confused by the story "The Marriage Manual," with its inclusion of some magical-realism that didn't sit right with me. 

Despite these small drawbacks, what Joyce gives us here is a delightful collection that reminds us that no matter how normal or ordinary our lives may seem, if you look in the right places, there are always some small miracles to be found. It seems to me that this message of hope is an appropriate theme for Christmas (or any time of celebration, for that matter), which even non-Christians (like me) can appreciate. This is why I'm going to recommend this book with a very strong four and a half stars out of five.


"A Snow Garden & Other Stories" by Rachel Joyce is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), as well as new or used from Alibris and Better World Books.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Guest Post: Co-Authors Anne Rothman-Hicks and Kenneth Hicks.

Weave a Murderous Web is a mystery novel by Anne Rothman-Hicks and Kenneth Hicks. In this guest post, they talk about their lives and their books.



We both have a thing about New York City. Anne was born here and she never would have left except that her parents dragged her off to what was supposed to be a better life in Scarsdale when she was nine years old. She still refers to that time away as “The Exile.”

Ken was raised in the suburbs of Abington, outside of Philadelphia, but remembers clearly his first visit to New York with his parents, and his second with a school band in Junior High, and the third with his roommates from college, and... Well, you get the idea? The city made an impression.

Eventually, we got married and have lived in New York City since 1973 and raised three children, who have also vowed never to leave. We have walked these sometimes-messy streets from top to bottom, explored the various neighborhoods, parks, museums, and bridges, and we still feel we have things to learn.

So now, what do we write about? We write about people in situations that put them under stress and cause them to grow, but those people are usually residents of New York City. And the neighborhoods of the city are an integral part of every story.

Concerning our mainstream novel, Kate and the Kid, one reader wrote:

It's almost as though the city itself is another character in the book. The writer seems to know where all the best parks are, the best playgrounds, and exactly how to get there. New York neighborhoods come alive is this novel so if you live in New York City or want to live in New York City or have even just thought about New York City, you'll enjoy the way Kate And The Kid makes it all seem familiar. Stanford Gal, Amazon Review, Feb. 8, 2015

The same is true of our other books. Weave a Murderous Web, the chronological first in the Jane Larson series, involves a hotshot Wall Street lawyer who helps a friend and gets involved in a seamy matrimonial case that leads to murder, attempts on her life, and general mayhem. The plot unfolds in and around the New York State Supreme Court building at 60 Centre Street, the posh law firms of Park Avenue, the seedy back alleys of TriBeCa, and the tenement buildings of the less developed sections of the Upper East Side. There is even an excursion out of the borough to Long Island City and elsewhere in Queens.

The result? One reader, who is also an author, said:

I love books where the setting comes alive. Where I feel like I’m in the place, with people who live there. This is true in this novel. These authors know the setting and make it real. Conda Douglas, Author.

So, if you want to take a visit to New York City without leaving your favorite reading chair, we have some suggestions. First, a cozy mystery (Weave a Murderous Web). Second, a mystery that will give you chills (Mind Me, Milady). Third, a thriller with lots of mayhem (Praise Her, Praise Diana). Fourth, a mainstream novel in which a young woman learns how to let love into her life when she takes care of a traumatized child (Kate and the Kid). And Fifth, a fantasy in which a talking pigeon leads a brother and sister on an adventure all around Central Park (Things Are Not What They Seem).

Well over 50 million people a year visit our city. We hope you will be one and will open up your minds and hearts to any one of our novels. We look forward to hearing from you!


Readers can connect with them on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.
To learn more, go to http://randh71productions.com/blog/




"Weave a Murderous Web" is one of three books in the Jane Larson series, published by Melange Books, and is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

Synopsis:
No good deed goes unpunished. When Jane Larson—a hotshot litigator for a large firm in New York City—helps a friend, she is sucked into the unfamiliar world of divorce and child support. Jane's discovery of the deadbeat dad's hidden assets soon unravels a web of lies, drugs, and murder that keeps getting more dangerous. Soon, Jane is involved in a high stakes race to recover a missing suitcase of cash and catch the murderer before she becomes the next victim.


Praise:
“A sleuthing lawyer returns to the streets of New York in this mystery of drugs, murder, and financial skulduggery… the husband-wife team of Rothman-Hicks and Hicks has again produced a fast-paced, engaging story… overall, this is a satisfying read. An enjoyable romp involving a shady attorney and the mob that should make readers look forward to the next Jane Larson caper.” - Kirkus

“The action is breathtaking and the writing beautiful. Weave a Murderous Web: A Jane Larson Novel is a story that reminds me of the characters of John Grisham’s Gray Mountain… Jane Larson is the kind of character that will be loved by many readers… The plot is well thought out and masterfully executed, laced with numerous surprises to keep readers turning the pages. This is one of those books that should occupy an enviable place in your shelf if you are into fast-paced thrillers and compelling investigative stories.” - 5 Stars, Ruffina Oserio, Readers’ Favorite

“MURDEROUS WEB is a classic whodunit with classic New York City characters.” - Gimme That Book

Weave a Murderous Web is an enthralling murder mystery. It gets your heart pounding with action and passion, while simultaneously entangling your mind with its ambiguity. The dynamic duo has done it again. The husband and wife writing team of Anne Rothman-Hicks and Ken Hicks pens another on-the-edge-of-your seat murder mystery. Engaging. Witty. Fast paced. I love the Hicks’ contemporary writing style. The narrative is full of delightful metaphorical statements. The setting takes you into the heart of New York City – it reflects just the right amount of ambiance… As the plot progresses, the intensity heightens, catapulting you into a surprising twist, then plummets you into a sudden, yet satisfying end.” - 5 Stars, Cheryl E. Rodriguez, Readers’ Favorite

Weave a Murderous Web involves a hotshot Wall Street lawyer who is a sassy, cynical New Yorker through and through. To help out a friend, she gets involved in a seamy matrimonial case that quickly pulls her into a vortex of murder, drugs, and dangerous games of deception.” - The Big Thrill

Weave a Murderous Web is a smart and entertaining mystery by Anne Rothman-Hicks and Ken Hicks that will leave lovers of the genre anxiously waiting for another installment starring the intrepid protagonist, Jane Larson… Weave a Murderous Web has plenty to keep the reader engaged as Jane digs in her heels, determined to get to the truth. Witty dialogue, supported by great writing and some understated humor, makes this book not only a must-read – but also a darned good one!” - 5 Stars, Marta Tandori, Readers’ Favorite

About the Authors:
Anne Rothman-Hicks and Kenneth Hicks have been collaborating on books for forty-six years. Their first joint effort was a student project while Anne was at Bryn Mawr College and Ken attended Haverford. Since then, they have written over twenty books together. They are members of International Thriller Writers. They live and work in New York City, where many of their books are set.

Their Jane Larson series of mystery/thrillers involves a high-powered New York City attorney with a penchant for getting involved in situations that she would be better off leaving alone. These novels have been praised by reviewers for their gritty portrayals of city life, lively characters, fast action, surprise endings and highly polished prose. Jane is cynical and rebellious, but she finds herself drawn to the simple life her deceased mother lived as an attorney who served women unable to afford legal services. The first two books in the series are Weave A Murderous Web and Praise Her, Praise Diana, both published by Melange Books, LLC. A third novel, Mind Me, Milady, will be published in early 2017.






Saturday, April 8, 2017

A Life in Steps

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney


On the evening of December 31, 1984, Lillian Boxfish set out for her traditional New Year's Eve dinner at her favorite Italian restaurant. Despite not being hungry after absentmindedly consuming most of a package of Oreo cookies while speaking on the phone with her son, she is determined to walk all the way there, thinking it might bring her appetite back. Walking the familiar streets of New York brings back over 50 years of memories, where once people knew her as the "highest paid advertising woman in the world." Based on the story of Margaret Fishback, Kathleen Rooney's book is a journey of imaginings using grace and elegance, together with humor and tragedy to investigate the life of a woman we otherwise would never have known.

The concept of this book is simply ingenious. On the one hand, we follow Lillian's paths along the streets of New York from the last hours of 1984 until the first moments of 1985. Her stops along the way include not only her original destination (her traditional New Year's Eve Italian restaurant), but a list of spontaneous favorite spots that have significance to her - from both her past and her present. While she makes her way, we not only get to experience the strangers she meets, but also the memories from her past that come to mind along the way. In this way, we get an overview of Lillian's New York life, and what a life that was!
Furthermore, Rooney gives Lillian a very liberal outlook on the world, one that is (for the most part) non-judgmental, and accepting of practically everyone, even to the point of possibly putting herself into harm's way. (Think about it, an 85-year-old woman, walking the streets of New York at night, alone, in 1984-5! How much more vulnerable can you make yourself?)

This is certainly my favorite type of fiction (although usually this happens more with historical fiction, and less with contemporary fiction - of which this is essentially both), shining a light on real people about whom we know little to nothing about, and Rooney's spotlight was as startlingly bright as it was flattering. To begin with, Rooney's writing style is so sophisticated and charming that you can't help but believe that Lillian was not only a talented writer and poet, but that she must have been even more beguiling than Rooney portrays her. Rooney's use of language is also endearingly witty, and I'm trying to figure out how many words in the thesaurus I'll need to use to describe this book, because it's already starting to run out of appropriate adjectives.

As you can see, I'm in love with this book, and that makes it terribly difficult to review without becoming so effusive that my readers get sick of me. So rather than go on and on with piles of compliments that get not only whipped cream but several cherries on top, I'm simply going to say that I cannot recommend this book highly enough, and it deserves more than just a full five stars out of five! (Note to self: where have you been all my reading life, Kathleen Rooney?)

(PS: If you want to read more about the inspiration behind Lillian Boxfish, you can go to Duke University's Guide to the Margaret Fishback Papers, 1863-1978 and undated, take a look at the Wikipedia page about her, as well as read the official New York Times obituary, which doesn't say all that much, I'm afraid. However, below you'll find links to some of her books of verse that I found available on Amazon - just in case you're interested and have the money for these apparently collectable, long out-of-print volumes.)





"Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk" by Kathleen Rooney published by St. Martin's Press, released January 17, 2017 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.


In case you're interested, I found the following copies of Fishback's books of poetry on Amazon here:


Sunday, April 2, 2017

Truth and Politics

The Death of an Owl by Paul Torday


According to the forward (written by the late Torday's son Piers), this book is "about a man who couldn't help but tell the truth, and how that played out when he gets involved in a scandal involving a politician who runs over an owl by mistake." This was supposed to be Torday's ninth novel, but he passed away before he could finish writing it (apparently, leaving the manuscript unfinished, with the writing "stopped mid-sentence, at a key point in the story"). Thankfully, Piers took up the challenge and finished it for him.

It seems somewhat appropriate that the underlying theme of this book is about truth and politics - and how they apparently don't mix. In fact, from what I can see, Torday is essentially saying that politicians are inherently liars (no surprises there). More importantly, Torday seems to believe that as much as they may try to run from their dirty secrets, in the end, they can't really hide. This somewhat optimistically cynical view of British government does have shades of his most famous book, "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" (which I read, but never reviewed). In addition, Torday also takes this to somewhat darker, almost mystic corners, which reminded me of his novel, The Girl on the Landing. Torday also inserts a psychological aspect into this book that brought to mind his Light Shining in the Forest.

What Torday was best at in his previous novels was getting quickly to the heart of a story. However, in this book we get quite a bit more back-story than in his other works. This starts with Torday's protagonist, Charles Fryerne (of Fryerne Court, no less), whose family had a glorious past, which has long since faded. Charles begins to find his way at University and decides go on to become a political journalist. At first, we see Charles' budding career, and watch how his lack of guile helps him gain a certain reputation (with little to no financial gain in the process). Charles reports the facts and doesn't allow (what we now call) fake news to get in the way of the truth, he also sees both sides of any story. Being so trustworthy is the very reason people from his past turn to him with their political ambitions, but it also makes him vulnerable for others to take advantage of him. Torday delves quite deeply into these aspects of the story, which I felt was something of a departure for Torday, at least in how they compare to the rest of the novel.


However, it also seemed that Torday forgot some of these pieces of information behind, including some that might have been useful foreshadowing, for later events in the book. For example, the main antagonist in this story is Andrew Landford, a man Charles meets in passing while at university, whose dream is to become Prime Minister. After gathering a think tank to brainstorm how to revitalize British conservative politics, Andrew suddenly goes off to the USSR, and ends up staying there after the fall of the union. This allows him to take advantage of that era's instability and amass even more wealth than he had to begin with. This tidbit is totally ignored later in the book, and I'm not sure why. One explanation is that when Torday's son took on finishing the book, he may have overlooked certain aspects - call them clues - which Torday intended to use for the climax and ending that he originally envisioned for this novel.
 

I must admit that my feeling that Torday (or his son) ignored this bit could be my own present paranoia, brought on by today's American headlines. I have to remember that Torday died in 2013, before Brexit or Trump. However, as was highly evident in Salmon Fishing, Torday certainly understood how money and power (both from within and without) could influence the workings of government. That's why I'm thinking that while Torday was writing this book, he was also looking at the political world - both at home in the UK as well as in USA - and he was trying to make a statement. I think that statement was an essentially hopeful one (if somewhat naïve in today's world), despite some of the ominous aspects of this book. In other words, Torday was trying to say that honesty, while generally valued on an intellectual and philosophical level, sometimes gets you into as much trouble as deceit.

As for the hints at the unnatural threats in this story, I was hoping that they'd develop a touch more than what we have here. I'm positive that this was Piers' doing, since I doubt that Torday would have let that get such a reasonable explanation - at least not if you've read his book Girl on the Landing. On the other hand, the idea that one freak incident can absurdly snowball into making or breaking a politician is something that comes through beautifully in this novel, and that's to Piers' credit. I also couldn't tell where Torday's prose dropped off and Piers' began, which is certainly a good thing. Finally, I also appreciated how the insertions of wry humor consistently continued from the beginning through to the end of the novel. Overall, while this isn't quite as good as the other books written by the late Torday, it was an excellent effort on Piers part, and I congratulate him on being brave enough to attempt to continue his father's legacy. I also think how Piers concluded this story, made it very topical in light of certain political personalities in the news these days. For all that, I'll recommend it with a strong four stars out of five rating.



"The Death of an Owl" by Paul Torday (with Piers Torday) is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Mobile Stories

Eveningland by Michael Knight


In this book, Michael Knight brings us a collection of short stories to give us the flavor of the people and the location of Mobile Alabama. Short summaries of the stories are as follows:

  • An elderly man tells us the story "Water and Oil," as he observes his young neighbor suffer through his first crush.
  • The story "Smash and Grab" is about a home break-in that goes terribly wrong, with a twist ending.
  • An art teacher in a strict Catholic school is at the center of "Our Lady of the Roses," where she looks at her world, and wonders how, or if, she can find relief from that which is suffocating her.
  • A 50th birthday for the member of what seems to be the perfect Mobile family is the backdrop of the story "Jubilee."
  • In the story "Grand Old Party," a man realizes his wife is having an affair, and he decides to take his shotgun and confront her at her lover's home (told in second person).
  • The still grieving and (very) wealthy widower in the story "The King of Dauphin Island" suddenly gets the idea into his head that he can buy Dauphin Island and everything there, until his daughters get wind of the project. The last line of this story connects nicely to…
  • "Landfall," which is a story (with a large number of characters) of mostly one family that delves into the events surrounding the approach of a disastrous hurricane.

One thing you might notice about these stories how Knight ends them - or doesn't, for that matter. Don't worry; there won't be any spoilers in this review. However, you should know that not all of Knight's stories include concrete conclusions. To be fair, sometimes that's a positive thing, particularly if the point of the story is to give the reader an outline of a character (or group of characters) life, rather than a conflict they need to overcome. It can give you a feeling that you're witnessing a vignette, which can be very effective. For example, in the story "Jubilee," all of the action takes place prior to the birthday party, focusing on this couple - their relationship with each other and their own places in their world. Just when we're expecting something to happen that would upset this careful balance, Knight ends the story. I found that this worked better when Knight kept his major cast to only 2-3 characters. In those stories, I was easily able to focus my imagination on how things might play out after the conclusion of the text. Knight didn't stick with this format in his story "Landfall," but I have to admit that this made me feel that the many characters twirling around one another was used to parallel the hurricane he placed at the center of the story. However, I also felt that that this left far too many loose ends, which was unnerving for me; but perhaps that was Knight's point.

Another thing that you'll find in this book is Knight's tenderly mellow style of writing that is expressive without being fancy. Knight instills into these stories the type of ambiance that makes you realize just how much he must love Mobile, and how close his personal relationship is with this city. However, it also occurred to me that Knight never allowed these beloved locations to overshadow his characters and their personalities. In fact, with few exceptions, these stories could easily have taken place in any major seaside city (with appropriate changes in specific city-related details, of course).

Of course, I may be wrong about this, since I've never visited Alabama, but I'm not convinced that the universality of these stories was always a good thing. What I mean by that is, when I read fiction I need the author to transport me to those places where I've never been. Unfortunately, Knight didn't succeed in doing that for me with some of these tales. Even so, I still appreciated how sharp of these stories were, and how Knight made his characters so appealing. I also have to say that Knight's using the second person voice in the story "Grand Old Party" was particularly impressive. This is a risky mechanic to employ, because it is so unconventional. Thankfully, Knight pulled this off with perfection, which deserves admiration. In short, although I found a few small things that didn't work for me, Knight really shows he has a mastery of this form, and I can recommend this collection with a strong four stars out of five.




"Eveningland" by Michael Knight, published by Grove Atlantic, Atlantic Monthly Press, released March 7, 2017 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Guest Post: Carolyn Arnold - Writing Serial-Killer Fiction.

http://carolynarnold.net/remnants/
As a lover of the TV shows like "Criminal Minds," you'd think that I would be more of a crime fiction reader; but actually, I hardly ever read this genre. So when I received this offer to put up a guest post about writing serial-killer fiction by author Carolyn Arnold, I jumped at the opportunity. It certainly sounds fascinating!

Writing Serial-Killer Fiction


BY CAROLYN ARNOLD



The world seems to be uniquely fascinated and captivated by the mystery of serial killers. What motivates them to kill, and why do they choose certain people to be their victims? As fiction writers, we need to harness that intrigue, but we also should be very careful not to allow our work and characters to become cliché. That feat is certainly a tough one—especially since most stories have already been written!—but it can be done. It’s all about making your work extraordinary by creating your own distinct slant and personalized voice. And let’s not forget that it’s up to you to make sure your storytelling is superb. 


But there’s even more to it than good writing and coming up with a unique motivation and method of operation (MO) for your serial killer. You also have to know how your investigator is going to realistically look at the case. You want to portray your main character—for example, an FBI agent—as following and working through the investigative process the way one would if he or she was living and breathing. If you don’t, you risk losing your reader, not only for that book but possibly for future ones, too.


So where do you begin when you want to write this kind of fiction? Let’s start with what constitutes a serial killer. The basic definition requires a series of three or more killings that, due to characteristics such as an MO, can be attributed to one individual.


From here, the serious authors do their due diligence to educate themselves both in the mindset of a killer and the investigator, as well as in accurate police procedure. They should search online and reach out to real-world contacts for direction and feedback. As they do this, they’ll come to see a basic formula and start to recognize common terms and phrases, such as cooling-off period, trigger, organized, disorganized, hunter, sexual sadist, and the list goes on. As they dig even deeper, they will start to understand all that is involved in building a profile, as well as how and what information the investigator needs to compile a solid lead.


While writing serial-killer fiction takes a lot of research, it is very rewarding. As an author, you provide entertainment to many readers, it’s true, but you are also shining light on a dark part of society. You are going beyond the surface of the horror and providing some clarity into these heinous crimes and the minds of those who commit them.


Remnants is available in e-book, paperback, and hardcover formats from popular retailers, including the following:



Remnants Book Overview:


All that remains are whispers of the past…


When multiple body parts are recovered from the Little Ogeechee River in Savannah, Georgia, local law enforcement calls in FBI agent and profiler Brandon Fisher and his team to investigate. But with the remains pointing to three separate victims, this isn’t proving to be an open-and-shut case.


With no quick means of identifying the victims, building a profile of this serial killer is proving more challenging than usual. How is the killer picking these victims? Why are their limbs being severed and bodies mutilated? And what is it about them that is triggering this killer to murder?


The questions compound as the body count continues to rise, and when a torso painted blue and missing its heart is found, the case takes an even darker turn. But this is only the beginning, and these new leads draw the FBI into a creepy psychological nightmare. One thing is clear, though: the killing isn’t going to stop until they figure it all out. And they are running out of time…



About the Brandon Fisher FBI series:


Profilers. Serial killers. The hunt is on. Do serial killers and the FBI fascinate you? Do you like getting inside the minds of killers, love being creeped out, sleeping with your eyes open, and feeling like you’re involved in murder investigations? Then join FBI agent and profiler Brandon Fisher and his team with the Behavioral Analysis Unit in their hunt for serial killers.


This is the perfect book series for fans of Criminal MindsNCIS, Silence of the Lambs, Seven, Dexter, Luther, and True Crime


Read in any order or follow the series from the beginning.



About the Author


Carolyn Arnold is an international bestselling and award-winning author, as well as a speaker, teacher, and inspirational mentor. She has four continuing fiction series and has written nearly thirty books. Both her female detective and FBI profiler series have been praised by those in law enforcement as being accurate and entertaining, leading her to adopt the trademark, POLICE PROCEDURALS RESPECTED BY LAW ENFORCEMENT™.


Connect with CAROLYN ARNOLD Online:








And don’t forget to sign up for her newsletter for up-to-date information on release and special offers at http://carolynarnold.net/newsletters.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Counting on Family


Sisters One, Two, Three by Nancy Star


Ginger's 13th year was as unlucky as the number. Many years after that tragic summer, it seems no one has been able to fix anything broken back then. Furthermore, there's her deteriorating relationship with her daughter Julia, and her mother Glory is no less strange now, than she was back then. This book, written in parallel timelines, is a story about secrets, hiding things and what should to let go of vs. what to hold close.

As noted above, Star tells this story through parallel timelines, at least for the most part. One line follows Ginger today, with her daughter and husband and relationship with her sister Mimi and her brood. The other follows Ginger's 13th summer, the one that changed the Tangle family forever while vacationing in Martha's Vineyard. However, around two thirds of the way through the book, the flashback narrative ends, and the rest of the book focuses on only the present. Of course, part of the reason for this is to learn as much about that tragic summer as possible, together with some of the aftermath. The fact is, from quite early on in this book we realize that Star's early timeline is there to reveal the terrible event in this family's past. We also can easily guess what happened. On the one hand, this type of plot development builds up the suspense very nicely, and there are essential elements about Ginger's 13th summer that are vitally important to the story. More importantly, these sections also help us better understand Ginger's relationship with her parents and siblings. However, I think Star drew these sections out just a bit too long for my taste. To be honest, one point I started to feel a bit frustrated and somewhat impatient for Star to get on with the "action." I also felt that this slightly diminished the dramatic impact of the event. In other words, I think if Star had finished the dual narratives by about half way through the book, it might have felt a bit stronger.

Don't get me wrong; I really enjoyed this novel. To begin with, Star's style is very open and frank with a good smattering of humor, of the kind where you'll find yourself grinning. Star also doesn't mess around with overt descriptions of scenery, although you'll certainly get pictures in your head of places like the Vineyard and the beaches. With this, most of the focus of Star's story is on what the characters are feeling as they pass through those places, which further helps develop the atmosphere. Most impressive was how Star developed Ginger to perfection, who is the outstanding protagonist here, and this book really is her story. Star also does a marvelous job with developing Ginger's mother Glory. Star carefully shows the tensions between mother and daughter, particularly where there are secrets between them, paralleled in Ginger's own relationship with her daughter Julia. Together with the other minor characters, we get interplay of relationships, clouded by deceptions that enhance all of Star's situations.

As noted above, as soon as Star finished telling us about the fateful events of Ginger's 13th summer, and its immediate aftermath, this story really took flight. With only the present day events, the story unfolds with increasing tension, straight through to a marvelous twist in the story that you'll never guess is coming from anything that preceded it. From there, Star takes us to a quick conclusion that leaves us with just enough information to make us believe that the whole family has taken a turn towards improving their relationships with each other as well as in their own separate lives. I would even go so far as to say it was gripping, with enough of an emotional bang to make me cry (in a good way). For all of this, I can highly recommend this book and give it a strong four and a half stars out of five. (Warning: Although I would never call this "chic-lit," I do have a gut feeling that this book will appeal more to women than it will to men. Not that there aren't plenty of men out there who will enjoy this book, but my feeling is that this will be a bigger hit with female audiences. Is that sexists of me?)




"Sisters One, Two, Three" by Nancy Star, published by Lake Union Press, released January 1, 2017 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.